In Her Own Words: Remarkable Women in 20th-Century Florida

Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960

"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein."

— Zora Neale Hurston[1]

While growing up in Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston developed a love of storytelling that would later shape her career as an author, anthropologist and folklorist. Hurston was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s, and her fictional essays about the experiences of Black Americans attracted national attention. This recognition landed her a spot at Barnard College where she learned to conduct fieldwork under pioneer anthropologist Franz Boas. After graduating in 1928, Hurston traveled around the South collecting stories, songs and dances from rural Black Americans. In Florida, she documented the lives of workers and their families at phosphate mines and railroad camps in Polk County and the surrounding area.

After the release of her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston joined the Florida division of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) as a fieldworker and author. The FWP was part of the Works Progress Administration, a relief agency established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to employ thousands of workers affected by the Great Depression. Hurston wrote about the lives and experiences of Black Floridians working in turpentine camps and on the railroads, and she documented historical events, including the 1920 Ocoee election day riots. She also traveled around the state and collected rare audio recordings of Black Floridians sharing traditional stories and songs.

"Turpentine Camp - Cross City" by Zora Neale Hurston, 1939

An essay by Zora Neale Hurston for the Federal Writers' Project describing the life of workers at the Aycock and Lindsey Turpentine Camp in Cross City, 1939.

The Complete Performances of Zora Neale Hurston from the Florida Folklife Collection Cover

A playlist of songs performed by Zora Neale Hurston for the Works Progress Administration in 1939.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen- Eatonville, Florida

Zora Neale Hurston and Rochelle French watching Gabriel Brown play guitar in Eatonville, 1935. Hurston was there collecting music for the Works Progress Administration.

More from Florida Memory
At the Archives
  • Audio Recordings of Florida Folk Festival Performances and Other Folk Events, 1935-2001, 2017, 2019, Series S1576, State Archives of Florida.
  • Stetson Kennedy Florida Folklife Collection, 1935-1991, Series S1585, State Archives of Florida
  1. ^ Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), 143